June 2, 2013 at 3:32 PM ET
Many were surprised when Michael Douglas revealed Sunday that he blames human papilloma virus (HPV), strains of which cause cervical cancer, for his own bout of throat cancer.
But, in recent years, a rising number of head, neck and anal cancers have been tied to HPV, a sexually transmitted virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 63 percent of the estimated 11,726 cases of oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed each year in the United States are thought to be caused by HPV. About 3,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with HPV-associated anal cancer and the rate of infection appears to be increasing.
Of course, it's impossible for doctors to ever say with complete certainty what caused any individual's cancer. Smoking and drinking also raise the risk of head and neck cancer -- independent of HPV.
But between 1988 and 2004, head, neck and throat cancers that tested positive for the human papilloma virus rose an astounding 225 percent, according to one study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
Because of a reluctance to discuss oral sex, these facts are often overlooked, which is why many might be surprised by Douglas’s frank talk. His willingness to discuss the cause of his cancer may provide more impetus for wider adoption of HPV vaccines in the United States, which lags some other countries.
While the vaccines are usually sold as cervical cancer prevention, they also help prevent cancers in other parts of the body susceptible to infection by the cancer-causing HPV strains, such as the penis, mouth, throat, tongue and anus.